At nature's mercy

Farmers struggle to cope as weather gets more wild and extreme, damaging winter crops and putting their livelihoods at risk
2013-06-02T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:48:58Z At nature's mercyTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 02, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Some farmers say extreme weather events seem to be more frequent in Southern Arizona, forcing them to adapt.

"We're not scientists, but it's hard to ignore that something big is going on to create these extreme weather patterns," said Debbie Weingarten, co-owner of Sleeping Frog Farms in Cascabel.

"There seems to be hotter summers, colder winters, windier springs, and more volatile storm seasons. The old-timer farmers maintain that these weather patterns are very unusual, and are unlike anything they have seen in their lives," she added. "Hopefully we're not looking at a 100-year weather pattern, which means we'd be seeing record low temperatures again this year."

For some Southern Arizona farmers from Cascabel to Yuma, the unusual hard freezes of the last few winters have brought blackened peach blossoms, dying citrus crops, mushy spinach bunches, withered kale greens and frost-glazed heads of lettuce.

That cold isn't a distant memory for them, as it is for most of us as summerlike heat sets in. It's something they're still thinking about, learning from and paying the price for.

For the most part, the farmers say it was some of the most unusual weather they've had in years, although not all of them attribute it to climate change.

Crops damaged by frost

In the 2011 and 2013 frosts, Sleeping Frog Farms in the San Pedro River Valley lost about 80 percent of its beets and carrots and leafy greens such as kale, chard, spinach and lettuce. It forced the farm to raise prices of some produce and sharply cut back sales of other varieties for two months.

The farm, which doesn't use chemical pesticides, lies in the Cascabel area about an hour from Tucson. It's 3,265 feet above sea level at its highest point, dropping toward the river, where winter temperatures are lowest.

"In 2011, we hit 8 degrees on two separate nights. In 2013, we experienced two nights at 4 degrees and a night at 2 degrees," Weingarten said. "Our beet greens froze back, our turnips and radishes froze solid and most of our leafy greens took a huge hit."

The farm sells to a dozen Tucson restaurants, to residents through a Community Supported Agriculture program and at farmers markets.

It moved to the 75-acre Cascabel site in 2011 from a three-acre spot along the Cañada del Oro Wash on Tucson's northwest side.

By this year, the farm had installed six hoop houses, plastic-covered, greenhouse-like structures shaped like hoops. Even so, "2 degrees is still 2 degrees," Weingarten said in an email to the Star. "It's hard to get anything going in those kinds of temperatures."

Now, the owners are considering developing a satellite farm in the warmer Phoenix or Tucson area, to enable them to grow a better selection of winter vegetables and operate with less risk and worry.

"The anxiety that a farmer feels during extreme weather catastrophes is so intense," Weingarten said. "Our livelihood is truly at the mercy of nature."

Damaging freeze in Yuma

In Yuma, where 95 percent of the nation's winter lettuce is grown, its price spiked from $8 to $38 a carton a few days after this January's frost and stuck there several weeks. The fifth worst freeze in the area's recorded history, it brought six straight nights of freezing temperatures, recalls Kurt Nolte, the University of Arizona's Yuma agricultural extension agent.

"In fall 2012, it was unusually warm, and the early season crop grew extremely fast," Nolte said of the lettuce crop that grows on 175,000 acres there. "Some lettuce that was supposed to be harvested in January was pushed forward by up to five weeks in advance. Then, the January freeze slowed the crop growth."

During a freeze, "the outer surface of the leaf is irretrievably damaged and the outermost portion of the lettuce is unmarketable," Nolte said. "The crews have to go into the field and strip off all the unmarketable leaves to get to the stuff they still can sell."

Looking ahead, it will be difficult for the lettuce growers to adapt to continued cold weather, Nolte said. While you can run wind machines or light smudge pots to protect trees, "with lettuce, it's very difficult to manage that volume of acreage when a freeze event happens."

Still, even a bad frost causes a price fluctuation - not a catastrophe, he said.

"The farmers will still be involved in producing good quality, healthy produce," Nolte said. "With these weather events, whether it's drought or cold, the ultimate person who will pay for that will be the consumer."

peach blossoms turn black

George and Sue Wyckoff in Cochise County lost all their peaches during 2011's big freeze and a lesser one last year.

The frosts hit just as the trees were blossoming, turning the blossoms black. Their Grammy's Garden farm lies in the Dragoon Mountain area about 30 miles southeast of Benson in the middle 4,000-feet elevation range.

Even with the use of greenhouses, the peach crop "doesn't have much of a chance if it gets below freezing, and it got into the 20s in the last two years," George Wyckoff said. "This year it didn't do it and I'm feeling lucky."

Wyckoff, who has been farming in Southern Arizona for 10 to 12 years, said 2011 and 2012 were his worst. To prepare for future frosts, he'll change his crop rotations to grow lettuce, broccoli and brussels sprouts farther into the year instead of peaches if necessary.

Wyckoff, who is in his 60s and farms primarily as a lifestyle, also sells at farmers markets in Tucson.

A learning process

Jack Lemons, co-owner of Super Natural Organics, watched freakish cold kill 20 percent of his two farms' output in February 2011. He added a second greenhouse for winter growing at the colder operation near Douglas, and cut the crop losses in half in this year's frost. His company's second farm is in the St. David area.

The greenhouses are 60 feet by 30 feet each, with wood-fired, hot water heaters running heated water through plastic pipe.

Super Natural Organics sells to farmers markets in Tucson, Green Valley and Sierra Vista, and to Patagonia Orchards, an organic food distributor. Crops include apples, pears, mangoes, tomatoes and chard.

"Sometimes, going through these losses is a good education," said Lemons, whose business has operated eight years. "It's just part of the deal with produce. There's no way of protecting it all.

"But the greenhouses help us get several months of growing that we wouldn't get . . . All in all, we're happy with the way it's working," Lemons said.

Marana farm adapts

In Marana, Eunice and Larry Park of Larry's Veggies say they learned from their mistakes, after a bad winter two years ago.

The February 2011 freeze "killed everything, and knocked us out of the market for six to seven weeks. The freeze was so hard it turned most things to mush," Eunice Park said. "We were not prepared for it. The spinach, where normally it's pretty green, we walked down there and it was almost black from the freeze."

This past winter, the Parks covered their plants with frost cloth to protect them from extreme cold. They operate on just under an acre and sell their produce at farmers markets.

"We roll it up. It doesn't biodegrade right away. It's not cotton or a fake fabric, but it does breathe in air and let the air circulate around when there is a freeze," Eunice Park said.

"The cover keeps frost off the plants," said Park, who grows lettuce, spinach, kale, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers, slightly less than three miles west of Interstate 10. "This year, we were very, very lucky. We lost less than 10 percent of our crops."

Is climate change to blame? Farmers weigh in

Southern Arizona farmers speak on extreme weather events and whether they're due to climate change:

• Jack Lemons, co-owner, Super Natural Organics, Douglas and St. David: "I think it's all connected. The planet Earth is like a living organism. If part of our body gets sick, it affects the rest of our body."

• George Wyckoff, who runs Grammy's Garden 30 miles southeast of Benson: "The way I look at it, I don't know if it's climate change or not. But if we can fix it and it is climate change, why not just go ahead and fix it? If we don't, and it is a greenhouse effect on the earth, we'll just be sorry later."

• Eunice Park, co-owner, Larry's Veggies, Marana: "We feel it is just a natural thing. I know there is a huge debate about the whole global change thing and climate change. We have noticed some differences. Just in general, there is some weather pattern change, but I think that's kind of a normal thing."

THE STORY SO FAR

As the Star reported last Sunday, about a half-dozen peer-reviewed studies have linked global climate change, particularly the loss of Arctic summer sea ice and other changes in the fast-warming Arctic, to recent bouts of extreme cold and warm winter weather.

Alternating blasts of warm and cold have occurred in Southern Arizona for at least three years running. Similar doses of weird winter and early spring weather have hit the Midwest and Eastern U.S., as well as parts of Europe.

Scientists studying this connection, however, say it's too early to be sure that Arctic air patterns are lurking behind the rashes of extreme weather. These theories are controversial and even their staunchest backers agree that more research is needed.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.